Most Islamic scholarship focuses on verse-by-verse exposition of Qur’anic texts. Some recent works topically arrange Qur’anic texts into helpful indices, but not many scholars attempt to synthesize the major themes of the Qur’an. There are three main areas of Qur’anic study: (1) reconstructions of the Qur’an in chronological order, (2) demonstrations of Jewish and Christian ideas and antecedents to the Qur’an, and (3) descriptions of the content of the Qur’an, either in part or in whole. This third area of study is the least common, and it is this approach that Fazlur Rahman, in his book Major Themes of the Qur’an, seeks to employ.
Rahman synthetically outlines the Qur’an’s dominant areas of focus in logical order over against chronological order. The following themes are highlighted in individual chapters: God, Man as Individual, Man in Society, Nature, Prophethood and Revelation, Eschatology, Satan and Evil, and Emergence of the Muslim Community. He organizes these themes based upon his own hermeneutic, which is largely modern. According to the foreword, the author “values freedom from hierarchy and localized bonds, aligns himself with scientific advance and economic welfare, and more importantly, he rejects notions of a past that do not square with the story of progress” (xiii). Moreover, Rahman seeks to test the history and practice of Islam by the standard of Muhammad’s true religion—Qur’anic Islam.
Rahman’s work is significant, not necessarily because of his hermeneutical arguments and theological conclusions, but rather, because of the synthetic process by which he unfolds the Qur’an’s themes and applies them to Islam’s historical and contemporary settings. For the history of Qur’anic interpretation, this is an unusually fresh confluence of modern thought and Qur’an-centeredness.
God. Rahman opens his book by considering the necessity of God and his unity. He discusses the Qur’anic notion of monotheism—tawhid—and its rationality and reasonableness. The Qur’an aims to speak to man’s heart about God and to emphasize believing in God through “‘belief in and awareness of the unseen’ (2:3)” (2). God’s existence does not need theological proofs; mankind merely needs a reminder of his existence. The Qur’an lays claim on the heart and mind of man to submit to this self-existent deity. God is the Served, and man is his servant. God is not obliged to explain, prove, or reveal himself.
Man as Individual. The Qur’an rejects the body-mind dualism of Greek thought. It sees the body-mind as fused together. The soul is a mental state inseparable from the mind. Satan is the antithesis of man instead of the anti-God. Man, as God’s vice-regent, is granted free choice, and thus man rules the moral social order. This vice-regency constitutes the mission of man on Earth. Unlike the cosmos, which follows God’s ingrained laws, man, being granted free choice, has a set of potentialities that enable him to submit to the will of God. There is a moral tension in man because he is petty, imprudent, and prone to forget God. Suffering helps man remember God. When man remembers God and makes moral choices over against all lesser choices, he achieves the eminent balance that the Qur’an calls taqwa.
Man in Society. The Qur’an uniquely promotes human flourishing and condemns “even the idea of ‘being unjust to oneself [zulm al-nafs],’ so that individuals and particularly societies are eventually destroyed.… It is basically talking about the self-destructiveness of a way of life, of a society, of a type of civilization” (37). Man is designed to be part of a community. The Qur’an criticizes the polytheism and social injustice of pre-Islamic Arabia (the Makkan society). To counteract the despairing socio-economic conditions of Makkan society, the Qur’an proposes banning usury and imposing the zakah tax, which was for the distribution of wealth and the alleviation of social injustice.
The Qur’an also promotes a strong family unit where the parents are respected and obeyed, and parenting is guided and bound by the Qur’an. When man rightly treats all members of society, including his enemies, he comes closer to the ideal of taqwa. For a model state system to promote taqwa for all members of society, the Qur’an prescribes a shura (a collectively-led committee) of educated men to rule society with equity, since justice is the prerequisite of every action of man and society. The Qur’an teaches the value of personal property, earning, religion, dignity, and freedom of life. In a polygamous marriage, men are to respect their wives, and if they do not, the wives have the right to divorce. In the Qur’an, man and society are one, working toward the higher goal of taqwa.
Nature. The story of nature’s creation is minimally discussed in the Qur’an. Nature submits perfectly to God’s commands, and is thus “Muslim.” Nature’s purpose is to show forth God’s Ultimate Power and his Infinite Mercy. The whole cosmos is a sign of God, which man in his obstinacy suppresses. Moreover, there are other supranatural signs which go against the laws of nature, but in order to understand their significance, man must have the capacity of faith. Like the signs of nature, the verses of the Qur’an serve as signs to man because they come from the same Creator. “God’s great sign is the nature and the universe. Man has to discover this himself. Nature exists for man to exploit for his own ends. That is its purpose. Man’s purpose is to serve the Creator; therein lies the difference between physical and moral law.”
Prophethood and Revelation. Islam is viewed as the perfect and complete form of religion; Muhammad’s message is the end of the evolutionary process of religion. All the prophets have the same essential message—monotheism (tawhid)—which Muhammad most authoritatively taught. This chapter describes the Spirit of Revelation (or an angel) which came upon the Prophet’s heart by the Spirit in the Night of Power (al-qadr). God only speaks to men through the Spirit infused in the mind of the Prophet. The beauty and linguistic style of the Qur’an’s Arabic evinces its miraculous nature.
Eschatology. The Qur’an speaks of Judgment Day as the day when man becomes fully aware of the truth about himself. As he stands before God, he will have a record of everything he did inscribed in a journal in his hand. There will be no intercessor on that day unless God permits. Every deed will testify for or against the man, and the Hereafter will depend upon his life on Earth. The Qur’an grounds its moral imperatives in this fear of Judgment Day.
Satan and Evil. Satan is of the Jinn—creations parallel to man but more evil. Satan is anti-man, as opposed to anti-God; he rivals man and seeks to deceive him into disobeying God’s will. According to the Qur’an, taqwa is a strong buttress against Satan’s attacks. Satan symbolizes hopelessness, which is why the Qur’an condemns hopelessness and despair. Moreover, evil men are empowered by Satan, and man’s weaknesses and lack of morals make him an easy target for Satan.
Emergence of the Muslim Community. This chapter demonstrates that the Arabs were looking for a religion like Judeo-Christianity. Stories of Jesus and Moses circulated around the Arab community, so when they came to Muhammad, they came in the form of Revelation. And Muhammad’s Revelation encompassed all the prophets. God is one, God’s prophets attest to this one message, and God’s people are all one. From this community of oneness around the final revelation (monotheism) given to Muhammad emerged the concept of the Muslim ummah—the house of Islam. The Christians and Jews were called the People of the Book, yet they were viewed as defective in their so-called monotheism. But the Muslim community demonstrated the ideal, since it did not deviate in its strident devotion to monotheism.
From the perspective of a Westerner who has not been trained in Qur’anic teaching or in Islamic culture, Rahman’s book is very helpful. For those who are scholars of the Qur’an, perhaps their opinions of the Qur’an would be more nuanced and critical. For access to the broad and dominant themes of the Qur’an, however, this book is quite useful.
The author does not seem to get distracted with theological minutiae or tangential issues. He simply outlines major topics that support the governing theme of the Qur’an: the absoluteness of God alone. The Qur’an’s aim is to remind man of who he was and where he has fallen, and to guide him toward unity with God and his fellow man. Man has been entrusted, as God’s vice-regent, with the moral and social order of this world. He must live under the command of God in order to fulfill his responsibility now and in eternity. He will reap in eternity what he has faithfully or unfaithfully sown on Earth.
Throughout each chapter, Rahman demonstrates the Qur’an’s message that God is one, God’s message is one, God’s Book is one, and the community should be one as well. Because of the Qur’an’s self-attestation to its unity under God’s oneness, it seems Rahman explicitly connects the unity of life lived under God’s command and the unity of community lived in a harmonious social order. Of course, from the perspective of an evangelical Christian, the Qur’an is neither inspired nor authoritative. Nevertheless, Rahman’s use of interpretive methods akin to biblical theology helpfully elucidates the main subjects of the Qur’an.
Rahman argues for expositing the Qur’an as a whole over against dissecting its parts. For those who are unfamiliar with the Qur’an or for those who are teaching the basics of the Qur’an to others, Rahman’s approach is quite useful. He impartially interacts with the Qur’anic text and demonstrates his insights from the text. His thematic approach also gives the reader an interpretive grid through which to approach the Qur’an. Knowing the major themes of the Qur’an enables the reader to organize general concepts and to discover minor themes otherwise hidden by the Qur’an’s literary complexity. Overall, this book enables access to the Qur’an in a way that few scholars have attempted. Rahman expounds themes that are sometimes shrouded. Rahman’s book is suitable for both the Qur’anic scholar and the novice. Major Themes of the Qur’an is recommended for anyone interested in understanding the Qur’an or in engaging Qur’anic Islam.